A History of Sheffield

By Tim Lambert

Sheffield in the Middle Ages

Sheffield takes its name from the River Sheaf. It was once called the Sceaf, which means border so it was the border river. Sheffield was founded in the early 12th century by the Lord of the Manor, William de Lovetot. He built a castle on the site of Castle Market. It was on an easily defended site as it had a river on the north and east. The castle had a moat on the south and west. In 1266 rebels burned Sheffield castle but it was rebuilt in 1270.

The Lord also built a church on the site of Sheffield Cathedral. A little town grew up between the castle and the church. That often happened in the Middle Ages. The garrison of the castle provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. Sheffield only had a population of a few hundred. It would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days. A typical village had only 100 or 150 inhabitants.

Medieval Sheffield would seem more like a village than a town to us. Many of the people in the town were at least part-time farmers. They tilled the fields around the town. However, wool was made in Sheffield in the Middle Ages. After it was woven the wool was fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of clay and water to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. Afterward, it was dyed. The first cutler in Sheffield was mentioned at the end of the 13th century.

In 1297 Sheffield was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). They were given the right to have a weekly market and an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over South Yorkshire to attend a Sheffield fair.

By the 14th century, Sheffield was beginning to be known for cutlery. In 1340 the king made an inventory of his possessions in the Tower of London. These included a knife from Sheffield. About 1380 Chaucer mentioned a Sheffield knife in his Canterbury Tales. However, there were several other towns noted for cutlery. Sheffield was by no means the most important. Furthermore, some of the cutlers may have been part-time farmers. In a small market town like Sheffield, there were many other trades apart from cutlers such as butcher, baker, brewer, carpenter, blacksmith, and shoemaker.

Sheffield in the 16th century and 17th century

Bishop’s House was built at the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century. It got its name because it is supposed to have been the house where two brothers, John, and Geoffrey Blythe lived. Both brothers became bishops. In the 16th century, Sheffield became far more famous for its cutlery. Before 1500 watermills were adapted to grinding tools and the cutlery trade boomed. By 1600 Sheffield was the main town in England (apart from London) for cutlery.

Nevertheless, there were several other trades apart from cutler e.g. there were weavers of wool and men who made things like spoons from cow horns. In 1617 a survey showed Sheffield had a population of 2,207. By the standards of the time, it was a respectably sized town though it was by no means large.

Despite the booming cutlery trade, there was a great deal of poverty in Sheffield in the 17th century. The survey showed 725 people, about a third of the population were ‘not able to live without the charity of their neighbors. They are all begging poor’. There were also many people living just above the poverty line. The survey found 160 householders who ‘though they beg not are not able to abide one fortnight’s sickness but they would be thereby driven to beggary’. In 1628 a workhouse where the destitute could live and be put to work was built.

Meanwhile, in 1624 the Company of Cutlers was formed with the power to mark artifacts if they reached a certain quality. In 1638 the first Cutlers House was built. In 1603 Thomas Crowland left money in his will to build a grammar school.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. In October that year, parliamentary soldiers occupied the castle but they abandoned it when a royalist army approached. The royalists took Sheffield castle and the town without a fight. However, in August 1644 the parliamentarians counterattacked. The royalists did not attempt to defend the town but they tried to hold Sheffield castle. However, it was forced to surrender after a short siege. In 1648 the Castle was destroyed to prevent it from ever falling into royalists’ hands again.

By the late 17th century the population of Sheffield had probably risen to about 5,000. There was an increasing specialization of trade. As well as cutlers there were file smiths, scythe smiths, sickle smiths, wool shears smiths, and awl-blade smiths.

Sheffield in the 18th century

In 1707 a boys charity school was founded. Earl Gilbert’s ‘hospital’ (almshouses) was built in 1721. In 1762 assembly rooms were built where card games and balls could be held. The first theatre in Sheffield was built in 1763. Sheffield grew rapidly in the 18th century. A survey in 1763 showed it had a population of over 10,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. In 1768 it was described as ‘very large and populous but exceedingly dirty and ill-paved’. Sheffield had a reputation as a grimy industrial town.

In 18th century Sheffield industry boomed. Sheffield was noted for its iron industry. In the early 1740s, a man named Benjamin Huntsman invented a way of making better quality steel called crucible steel. Another inventor named Thomas Bolsover discovered a way of plating copper with silver. This silver plate was, of course, cheaper than silver and was very popular for things like candlesticks and teapots. In 1773 Sheffield was given its own silver assay office.

In the 1750s a lead mill was built in Sheffield and in about 1760 a silk mill was built. (It was later converted to a cotton mill). Communications also improved in the 18th century. By 1751 the River Don was made navigable to Sheffield. Furthermore, an infirmary was built in 1797.

Sheffield in the 19th century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Sheffield had a population of over 31,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town. By 1851 it had grown to over 135,000. Like all 19th century towns, Sheffield was dirty and unsanitary. However, even for the time, it had a reputation as a grimy and dirty town (not surprising considering its heavy industries). In 1832 there was an epidemic of cholera in Sheffield which killed 402 people.

However, not all the houses were slums. In the early 19th century a middle-class suburb was built west of the town around Glossop Road. In the working-class areas of Sheffield, the worst houses were back-to-backs. These houses were joined back to back without even an alley between them. In 1864 the authorities forbade the building of many more such houses. However, those that had already been built remained.

There were, nevertheless some improvements in Sheffield during the 19th century. In 1818 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave and clean the streets of Sheffield. From 1818 the streets of Sheffield were lit by gas. The first cemetery in Sheffield opened in 1836. In 1830 a corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was opened (it was later rebuilt). In 1832 a dispensary opened in Sheffield where the poor could obtain free medicines. The present Cutlers Hall was built in 1832. In 1836 the Botanical Gardens opened. At first, they were privately owned but the council purchased them in 1898.

In 1843 Sheffield was given a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights). From then on it had an elected town council, which gradually took over the powers of the old Improvement Commissioners. Sheffield was made a city in 1893. The Town Hall was built in 1897. Meanwhile, Ruskin Gallery was founded in 1875 and Mappin Art Gallery opened in 1887.

In the early 19th century a private company provided piped water. In 1859 they built a dam across Dale Dike. On March 11 1864 this dam burst. As a result, 240 people drowned in Sheffield.

The council took over the water supply in 1887. In the 1870s the council built sewers and drains. At first raw sewage was pumped into rivers but in 1886 a sewage treatment plant was built. Life in Victorian Sheffield gradually improved. The first public library was built in 1856. From 1873 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Sheffield. In 1899 the first electric trams ran in the streets.

During the 19th century, the old industries in Sheffield like iron continued to boom. Then in 1856 Henry Bessemer invented a way of producing better quality steel. In 1858 he began producing steel in Sheffield. Button-making flourished. However, in 1840 a way was found to make silver plate by electroplating replacing the old Sheffield plate. Cutlery continued to be the dominant industry in Sheffield.

Sheffield in the 20th century

By 1900 the population of Sheffield was over 400,000. This was partly due to boundary changes. In 1921 the boundaries were extended to include Handsworth and Wadsley. In 1935 they were altered to include Totley, Dore, Beauchief, and Greenhill.

Meanwhile, Sheffield University was founded in 1905 and the first cinema in Sheffield was built in 1910. Then in 1913, the first stainless steel was cast in Sheffield.

However, In 1916 Sheffield was bombed by German zeppelins leaving 28 people dead. After World War I the heavy industries of Sheffield entered a recession. There was severe unemployment in the city in the 1920s and 1930s.

However, that era also marked the beginning of large-scale slum clearance. The first council houses were built in Sheffield at that time. Meanwhile, Graves Art Gallery opened in 1934. During the Second World War, 589 people were killed in Sheffield by German bombing and nearly 3,000 houses were destroyed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, slum clearance in Sheffield continued. Many new council houses were built in estates like Gleadless Valley. Council flats were built at Park Hill and Hyde Park. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Asian and West Indian immigrants came to Sheffield.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the ‘satellite’ communities of Dronfield, Mosborough, Chapeltown, and Stocksbridge grew rapidly.

The Emergency Services Museum opened in 1984. Meadow Hall Shopping Centre was built in 1990.

The traditional industries in Sheffield such as iron, steel, and cutlery declined in the 20th century. As in other cities, there was a shift away from employment in manufacturing industries to jobs in service industries.

The Sheffield Supertram began operating in 1994.

Sheffield in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Sheffield is thriving. Millennium Galleries opened in 2001 and the National Ice Centre opened in 2003. Also in 2003, the Winter Garden opened. Millennium Square opened in 2006.

A view of Sheffield

In 2023 the population of Sheffield was 556,000.

A Timeline of Sheffield

c. 1120

A castle is built on the site Sheffield. Afterward, a little town grows up in the shadow of the castle.


Sheffield Castle burns


The castle is rebuilt

c. 1300

There are cutlers in Sheffield

c. 1380

Chaucer mentions a Sheffield knife. The little town is already known for its cutlery.


Sheffield is the main town outside London where cutlery is made


Thomas Crowland leaves money in his will to found a grammar school


Sheffield has a population of 2,207


A Company of Cutlers is founded


A workhouse is built


During the English Civil War Royalists occupy Sheffield


Parliamentary troops capture Sheffield


Sheffield Castle is destroyed


The population of Sheffield is about 5,000


A boy’s charity school is founded


Earl Gilbert’s Hospital is founded


The road from Sheffield to Derby is turnpiked


The road to Leeds is turnpiked


Assembly Rooms are built


The first theatre in Sheffield is built. The population is over 10,000.


Sheffield is given its own silver assay office


Sheffield has a population of more than 31,000


Improvement Commissioners are formed to pave and clean the streets. The streets of Sheffield are lit by gas.


Cholera kills 402 people. A dispensary opens where the poor can obtain free medicines.


The first cemetery is formed. The Botanical Gardens opens.


Sheffield is given a charter


Sheffield has a population of over 135,000


Sheffield gains a public library


Sheffield bans the building of back-to-backs (houses joined back to back). A dam bursts and the flood kills 240 people.


Horse drawn trams run in the streets


Ruskin Gallery is founded


Mappin Art Gallery opens


Sheffield Town Hall is built


The first electric trams run in Sheffield


The population of Sheffield is over 400,000


Sheffield University is founded


The first cinema in Sheffield opens


Sheffield is bombed by zeppelins and 28 people are killed


Graves Art Gallery opens

World War II

Bombing kills 589 people in Sheffield


Castle Market Shopping Centre is built


The Fire/Police Museum opens


Meadowhall Shopping Centre is built


Sheffield Museum of Popular Music opens


The Sheffield Supertram begins running


Sheffield City Airport opens


Millennium Gallery opens. The population of Sheffield is 513,000.


The National Ice Centre opens. The Winter Garden opens.


Millennium Square opens


The population of Sheffield is 547,000